Egypt: Archaeology vs. Politics?


In August, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s first appearance in court was televised. The world was shocked to see the long-time ruler of Egypt lying on a stretcher in the cage in which defendants in Egyptian courts are held while on trial. A judge has since banned TV cameras from the courtroom and Egypt has held its first democratic elections, with a strong showing for the Muslim Brotherhood.  Mubarak’s  trial continues this week with his lawyers seeking to prove that he is “neither a tyrant or a bloodthirsty man” but a “clean man” who did not give orders to shoot protesters. Mubarak, they say, did not intervene to stop the killings because he was “unaware” they were occurring. To contradict such claims, prosecutors have offered evidence in the form of autopsy reports with details of protesters who died from bullet wounds.

Meanwhile, the country’s economy is struggling. Tourism revenue in Egypt was $8.8 billion last year, a marked decline from $12.5 billion in 2010. Those who wish to travel to Egypt, where political unrest has been ongoing since the uprising a year ago, had best be “resilient,” says the Financial Times. The top visitors to Egypt in 2011 were Russians who are “far less daunted than others by the upheavals in the country” and have been filling beach resorts. British and German tourists have also still been traveling to Egypt. Tourism in the capital of Cairo and the Upper Egyptian towns of Luxor and Aswan has, though, been “a pathetic 10-15 per cent.”

Burned Books and Protesters Shot By Security Forces

With many still protesting against the interim military government, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) — and with riot police cracking down with beatings and live ammunition — tourists have shied away from Egypt. In late December, 16 Egyptians died and hundreds were injured in clashes, and the historical archive of the Egyptian Scientific Institute was destroyed when the building caught fire. Twelve out of twenty volumes of the original Description d’Egypte — a multi-volumed, encyclopedic work with maps and illustrations assembled over  20 years by scholars accompanying Napoleon Bonaparte during his Egyptian campaign — have been lost. Abdel Wahed El Nabawy, chairman of the National Archives, estimates that it could take ten years and $7 million to restore the charred remains of the collection.

But even as an international outcry arose over the burning of the books, activists pointed out that, in some cases, more attention was cast on the loss of the Scientific Institute than those killed, injured and arrested. This conflict between preserving Egypt’s past (the country is home to about a third of the world’s antiquities) and focusing on the very pressing needs for education and work for its 80 million inhabitants can be seen as one of archaeology and politics.

Archaeology, Politics and Zahi Hawass

Archaeologists, many of whom are from outside Egypt, say they have lost a year in the race to save partially excavated sites not only from exposure to the elements but from looters.

Writes Jo Marchant in Nature:

Egyptian officials have said that their reluctance to allow work to restart stems from security concerns; they are now starting to grant permits for excavations. But a broader problem is that Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), which coordinates all conservation and excavation activities in the country, has been mostly paralysed since the departure of its charismatic but controversial leader, Zahi Hawass. An ally of Egypt’s deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, Hawass was forced to leave office in July. Since then, the agency has gained and lost three heads in quick succession, with the latest secretary-general, Mustafa Amin, appointed at the start of October.

Hawass became the secretary-general of the SCA in 2002 and brought tourists and millions of dollars to Egypt, thanks in large part to revenue from traveling exhibitions of Tutankhamun’s treasures. He consorted with celebrities including the late Princess Diana; had his own reality TV show, Chasing Mummies; raised thousands of dollars for museums in Egypt.

But Hawass was also controversial and seen as seeking “mainly to boost his own fame at the expense of other researchers and of high-quality science.” Researchers found him “intolerant of opposition,” with those whose theories differed from his finding their excavation permits blocked.

Protecting Egypt’s Archeological Heritage in the Wake of a Revolution

Then came the revolution in January of last year:

Hawass’s hold on power started to slip when he denied, incorrectly, that any objects were missing after Cairo’s Egyptian Museum was looted on 28 January. It was further eroded when he underestimated the extent of looting at important sites, despite reports that it was severe, and repeatedly voiced support for Mubarak. When Mubarak fell, Hawass’s days were numbered. After resigning and being reappointed in March, Hawass finally left office in July.

He has barely appeared in public since, and has been under investigation by the Office of the Attorney General for a range of alleged offenses including stealing artefacts and diverting money from a touring Tutankhamun exhibition to a private charity owned by Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne.

While such charges have been deemed ridiculous, Hawass’ predicament is in some ways emblematic of the challenges for his country, as far as preserving Egypt’s archaeological past — certainly a huge drawing point for tourists and their dollars — and meeting the economic and other demands of Egyptians.

As Tarek El Awady, director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, notes, looting at Egypt’s sites and museums is still going on but “the most serious challenge is illegal building, with locals trying to claim archaeological land at several sites,” due to their lack of “appreciat[ion for] the importance of the country’s archaeological heritage.” Megan Rowland of the University of Cambridge counters that Hawass’ focus “on foreign audiences… left local people with no sense of ownership of their own antiquities” while El Awady says that Hawass did build up local people’s “knowledge of Egyptian heritage.”

Indeed, Hawass, who cannot leave Egypt while being investigated by the Office of the Attorney General, still says that only he can bring the tourists back. But hasn’t Egypt’s own very recent history shown the dangers of consolidating too much power in the hands of one man?


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Photo of the Tomb of Panehsy in Amarna by kairoinfo4u


Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W5 years ago

thank you

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

I have loved the history of Egypt my entire life

Howard C.
.5 years ago

Having read the rather in-depth comments that some other contributors have made what I have to say appears to be a little plebian. I have visited Eqypt quite a few times, I think that it is far to say that I am very fond of the place and have many friends there, some of whom are, like me, English by birth. Over the years (a span of around 15 or so) that I have been visiting this country I have seen the 'demograph' of visiting tourists change considerably with far larger numbers of Russian visitors and far less English (largely English by my observation - far less Welsh, Irish or Scottish) and less German or Italian. My understanding of the situation is somewhat limited, I have only visited as a tourist (albeit a well travelled one), but the change seems most apparent in the 'sunshine' resorts (Sharm el Sheik comes to mind) but less so in Luxor, Aswan and Cairo. Why is a question that I will leave to those with a better understanding of the situation than I have but one thing that I can add to the debate is the the 'fear' of extremism isn't something that I heard mentioned - lack of money due to loss of job is!

Nancy R.
Nancy R6 years ago

I don't know where to start! But here goes. How is making broad (and thinly-veiled hateful) generalizations about Muslims different or better than Muslims generalizing and spreading hate for non-Muslims or the West?
Gillian M., I think you're referring to Nubians - not Numibians (nationals of Numibia, as far as I know), who still live in the former ancient kingdom of Nubia in Upper (southern) Egypt. They are indeed dark-skinned but otherwise do not appear to be from the same gene pool as black Africans, like the Sudanese a bit further south. There are different shades of skin color in Egypt, and this has been the case since pharaonic times, which can be clearly seen in still-preserved tomb paintings and paintings on papyrus. Typically Egyptians are olive-complected, but tan very easily in the sun and can become quite brown.

Vlasta M., Making Nazi references in all circumstances involving possible ill-treatment of Jews is a cheap shot, and in fact trivializes the Holocaust. There was a thriving Jewish community in Egypt until WWII, when many Jews fled Egypt because they were afraid the Germans would win the Egyptian campaign and imprison them or worse. In 1956, there was a war over the Suez Canal in which Israel fought with England and France against Egypt, and many more Jews left. When property of wealthy people was nationalized in the 60s, more Jews (and Greeks and former Egyptian aristocrats, etc.) fled with as much of their wealth as they could take. It was a gradual

Lee H.
.6 years ago

Why is anyone surprised by this. The Egyptians overwhelmingly voted for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, who lied to the liberals and freedom-minded. This is going all over the Arab-Spring-world - a huge slide backwards into the scum of history. Surprise...

By the way, the Copts ARE the REAL Egyptians. Their language and racial make-up is most closely related to the ancient Egyptians. The Arabs were INVADERS of Egypt. Arab Muslims are the OCCUPIERS of Egypt, and it is so very, very sad that their retrograde, backwards majority has been like Islam has been all over the world - a cancer that takes over the host's apparatus, metasticizes and kills the host.

Islam kills... creativity, civilizations, hundreds of millions of people, music, freedom, and more.

Hannah L.
Hannah L.6 years ago


Gillian Miller
Gillian M6 years ago

Oh yes, I should add that Jews have no access to their own lands or history as the modern Muslims have killed and forced them out and they have become refugees. In fact, their history is being destroyed in Muslim dominated lands as they turn religious sites into fake mosques and that now includes Gaza. The same is now happening to Christians in these same lands, their churches, monasteries and historical sites are being taken over and turned into Muslim "historical" sites.

This does not give the current Egyptians the right to take all history and call it theirs, it only gives them the right to a share and, most definitely, no right to any other religion's sites.

Gillian Miller
Gillian M6 years ago

Marilyn, how could all of the past belong solely to the current Egyptians? The previous people who lived there included Jews and Christians and they also have a right to a share of their own history.

In fact, ancient Egyptians were predominantly black, Numibians, then people from the Mediterranean, Romans, Libyans, Assyrians, the Persians etc and well as Arabs. In other words ancient peoples are also Egyptian as are many modern ones. I suggest that these artifacts actually belong to more than one country and they need to be spread around to ensure that all people can see them and that not all treasures remain in one basket. After all, how long before another faction decides that they should be destroyed rather than let infidels see them or that they have nothing to do with Islam, maybe even remove evidence of the Old Testament.

Vlasta M.
Vlasta M6 years ago

Most Muslim countries are basket cases when it comes to feeding and housing their people. It is Islamic ideology of hate of non-Muslims and enlightenment The imams and mullahs keep the illiterate masses in darkness and whipping up their delusional Jew-and Christian hatred which had made most Muslim countries Juden-frei and now Christians are leaving in droves since their lives are not safe in the Muslim world any more.

There are too many stupid young men who had bought into the islamic supremacist ideology of hate of non-Muslims and take as a role model an illiterate pedophile polygamist and murderer. This kind of role model is not great for development of a civilized society based on justice and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Islam promotes DEATH, and mocks Jews for respecting human life on Earth. That is why those terrorists are able to persuade young horny men to blow themselves up, because they promise them Paradise with 72 virgins, which those young guys think is great, considering their grim prospects on Earth in their dysfunctional societies. Poor Egyptians!

Vlasta M.
Vlasta M6 years ago

Rule of Mubarak was a sunshine in comparison what is coming to Egypt under Islamists of Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab spring young men and women will regret their revolution, just as many Iranians did after Shah was replaced by much worse tyrants, such as Ayatola Khuomeni and Ahmedinijade.

They introduced Medieval evil sharia laws of beheading, stoning, hanging gays, misogyny, all based on Qu'ranic and Hadith writings that promote supremacist ideology of hate of non-Muslims, apartheid (Dhimmitude), misogyny,pedophilia, polygamy and murder for Allahu Akbar.

Political correctness has no place in a civilized society that needs to defend the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from Islamic sharia, which is incompatible with those important safeguards of our freedom.

Read Qu'ran and Hadith to see for yourself that Islam is not compatible with US Constitution and it is supremacist ideology of hate of non-Muslims, apartheid (dhimmitude), misogyny, pedophilia, polygamy and murder for Allahu Akbar.

After all, the terrorists of 9/11 did not shout Hail Mary, Our Father, Shema Israel or OM when plunging planes into WTO, but Allahu Akbar, which had become a war cry of Islamists when commuting their dastardly acts of terror, including American born and educated Muslims such as Fort Hood Muslim army psychiatrist who shouted Allahu Akbar while murdering 13 of his colleagues.

It is Islam itself that is the ROOT CAUSE OF TERRORISM around the world,